Archaeologists of the Year 2000

Article excerpt

In the Landes departement of southwestern France, a group of school-children visit a rock shelter used by hunter-gatherers of the Old Stone Age. The shelter is located on a cone-shaped mass of debris overlooking a river at a ford. From this vantage point early man kept watch as the animals crossed at different seasons. The skeleton of a dismembered reindeer unearthed on the site is a tangible piece of evidence which can help the children to imagine how the hunter-gatherers lived in those remote times.

In the neighbouring departement of Lot-et-Garonne, the children visit Stone Age rock shelters located at the riverside suggesting that fishing was practised there. Nearby megaliths and objects preserved in local museums help teachers explain how man the predator became a stock-raiser, then abandoned a nomadic life and turned to agriculture, how his growing mastery of fire enabled him to improve the quality of the earthenware he made and to develop metalwork techniques, first with bronze and then iron.

By on-the-spot study of these and other sites the children can form a picture of the changing human impact on the landscape, as well a5 changes in activities and habitat which took place down the ages in response to different needs.

The children are taking part in special "heritage classes", which were launched as an experiment in 1982 in the Aquitaine region to which the Landes and Lot-et-Garonne departements belong. The purpose of the classes is to introduce young people to the riches of the past and at the same time encourage them to contribute in their own way to the safeguard of the cultural heritage.

As part of the heritage classes, primary school children up to age eleven spend a week with their teachers in places rich in historical monuments and archaeological remains. They usually stay in chateaux, abbeys or other historic buildings, thus learning at first hand about their local heritage, which, hopefully, they will safeguard when they grow up.

After visiting prehistoric sites the children go on a trip to a flint workshop where researchers show them the techniques of our distant ancestors. Then they make stone tools, the efficiency of which they test by using them to scrape skins or wood.

The vestiges of a forum or the ruins of a well-preserved fourth-century villa where the mosaic paving of the baths has survived provide an excellent introduction to the GalloRoman period. From there the children move on to another workshop where they make a small mosaic using the methods described by writers of Antiquity.

Twelfth-century abbeys and churches, and strongholds of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries provide material to introduce the children to medieval religious, civil and military architecture, to the ways in which people thought in the Middle Ages, their social and political relationships and their economic problems.

The week ends with an evening get-together at which local musicians play medieval and Renaissance music on old instruments. The music and dancing bring this initiation into the local heritage to a festive conclusion.

At the request of both teachers and pupils, a second, complementary type of heritage class has been created to introduce ten-to fifteen-year-olds to the techniques of archaeology.

It was clearly impossible to allow the children to excavate real archaeological sites which might in any case turn out to yield few finds and would be educationally disappointing. instead a site has been purpose-built for the budding archaeologists. it consists of a succession of layers or levels, each of which corresponds to a period when the site was occupied. In particular there are a "prehistoric" level and a "historical" level, giving scope for a wide coverage of the science and methods of archaeology. …